Socialism for the 21st century?

IssueMarch 2006
Feature by Andreas Speck

From 23 to 29 January the “policentric” World Social Forum (WSF) was held in Caracas in Venezuela, the country of president Hugo Chavez's “Bolivarian Revolution”. No surprise then that the WSF received organisational and financial support from Venezuelan state institutions -- almost all ministries and the Metropolitan police, plus the nationalised state oil company PDVSA -- and that Chavez addressed the forum, and used it for one of his usual anti-imperialist speeches.

However, not everything is bright in the Bolivarian Revolution -- especially when you come from an antimilitarist background -- and the small but beautiful Alternative Social Forum, organised by Venezuelan Libertarians and anarchists -- and which took place in parallel to the state-sponsored event -- provided space for a more critical discussion of present day Venezuela.

Daily violence and militarisation

When we arrived at the airport, and on the way from the airport to Caracas, it was hard not to notice a lot of heavily armed police along the road, supposedly deployed for the safety of the people, but I can't help myself feeling less safe the more police -- especially armed police -- I see. In Caracas itself I particularly noticed the metal bars in front of most windows and doors and, frequently, even barbed or razor wire on top of fences -- and not just in rich neighbourhoods. Protection from life on the streets seems to be one of the major features of everyday life in Venezuela.

Human rights organisations such as PROVEA (Venezuelan Programme for Education and Action on Human Rights) are very concerned about the level of crime and violence, including violence from police and state security forces. State security forces were responsible for at least 71 deaths during 2004-05, 2731 cases of arbitrary arrest, plus 17 cases of forced disappearances, according to PROVEA's annual report -- a disturbing set of statistics.

One of the organisers of the Alternative Social Forum had first hand experience of arbitrary arrest and torture at a police station, and he is presently at risk of being killed or “disappeared” by the police because he is trying to take the police to court.

Even more worrying is the institutional militarisation of the country. Since the ex-paratrooper Chavez came to power in 1998, the military has been playing an increasing role in society. The 1999 constitution of the “Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela” states in Article 134: “Everyone, in accordance with law, has the duty to perform such civilian or military service as may be necessary for the defence, preservation and development of the country”. PROVEA pointed to risks linked to this constitutional militarisation, especially “the opening of a way towards a major presence of military functions in areas that were traditionally reserved for the civil world”.

The “Plan Bolivar 2000” -- a plan to develop Venezuela -- was, according to Chavez, a civil-military plan, requiring the military to “go from house to house combing the terrain. The enemy. Who is the enemy? Hunger.” This plan included a mobilisation of the military to deal with social issues -- certainly issues that had to be dealt with, but, it can be asked, was the military the best instrument to deal with these issues, and why was it used? However, since 2002 the military is back in the barracks, doing what even Chavez sees as the routine function of the military: training for war.

Total war?

Venezuela is implementing a “new military thinking”, which is basically a concept of total and “asymmetrical” warfare in case of a US intervention. This includes the development of the military reserve, the education of the population in the “military principles of discipline, love for the fatherland, and obedience”, the strengthening of pre-military education, and the strengthening of the “civil-military unity for the defence of the nation”. The Chavez government is officially increasing the strength of the military -- and especially of the reserves -- from 80,000 to 100,000. However, other sources have suggested that it could amount to 2.3 million armed and trained volunteers (nonactive, reservists).

Conscription in Venezuela is very much based on corruption; this means that better educated or well off youth can avoid the military. In practice, conscription is a “poverty draft”, especially in areas which lack employment and educational opportunities. Here young men “volunteer” for military service -- better off youth “buy” the necessary military papers which can protect them from “accidental” recruitment on the street. (The were reports in the past that, when the military doesn't reach its recruitment quota, military police round up youth in public places to check their military papers, and forcibly recruit those who do not hold the necessary documentation or are unable to come up with a sufficient bribe.)

Venezuela is also arming itself according to the “new military thinking”. In 2005 Russia agreed to sell Venezuela 100,000 Kalashnikovs and, earlier this year, the Spanish wing of the European Aeronautic Defence and Space Company, EADS-Casa, signed a contract for delivery of 12 military transport planes and eight warships to Venezuela, despite significant opposition to the deal from the US. In 2002 Israel sold 54 surface-to-air missiles and air-to-air missiles to Venezuela, but more recently a deal between the two countries -- to upgrade US-made F-16 fighter aircraft -- fell through following US pressure on Israel. Over the past few years Venezuela has also been on shopping sprees in Brazil, China and Korea.

But, as usual, the US itself is playing the dirty game. During the past four years, the US issued licences for the sale of pistols, rifles and ammunition, riot-control equipment, interrogator sets, and tear gas to Venezuela, totalling almost US$100 million. It appears they are quite happy to supply materiel used for domestic suppression, though less keen to see Venezuela extend its capacity for fighting further afield. Meanwhile, Amnesty International continue to report their concerns on the indiscriminate use of anti-riot equipment during street protests.

Venezuela: now it belongs to all

The “spin” of the Chavez government is the widespread slogan that, now, “Venezuela belongs to all Venezuelans”. The slogan “Venezuela, ahora es detodos” can be seen everywhere. However, the truth is more complex. Obviously, Venezuela is far from any form of socialism, although the government has certainly increased social services and social security -- but within the framework of capitalism.

The energy sector is one important example. Not only does Venezuela follow the traditional development model but, although nationalised, the oil industry is wide open to participation by multinational companies. Venezuela is the fifth largest oil exporter in the world, and 60% of the country's oil exports go to the USA -- where they account for about 11% of oil imports.

While the Venezuelan government increased tax and royalties for oil production, multinationals are still not just welcome, but actually needed in order to exploit Venezuela's oil, gas, and coal, without much consideration of local populations. However, the legal framework has changed, and instead of “out-sourcing” the operation of oil fields to multinationals (which guaranteed huge profits), the new framework requires joint ventures with the state-owned PDVSA. Gazprom (Russia), Chevron-Texaco (USA), Total FinaElf (France), ENI (Italy), Statoil (Norway), BP (UK), and Shell (UK-Netherlands) are a few of the multinationals that profit from Venezuelan oil.

However, US-based Exxon refused to transfer their assets in Venezuela into a new joint venture, and the conflict between Venezuela and Exxon escalated on 1 January 2006, when Venezuela took control of the assets in the absence of a legally required agreement.

Besides oil and gas, Venezuela plans to increase its production of coal, mined in open pits -- something which will have a huge and negative impact on the environment and on local, mostly indigenous, communities. The plan is to increase annual production from 8 to 36 million tonnes of coal -- Venezuela itself only uses about 100,000 tonnes, the rest will be exported. The planned new coal mines will lead to the dislocation of indigenous communities of the Wayu'u and others, mostly in the border region with Colombia. Again, most of the profit will be made by multinationals.

What role for the peace movement?

The question for Venezuela is not about Chavez or US-sponsored “democratic” opposition (the old elite). Venezuela is not Cuba, or any other completely closed society -- there is a lot of space for debate, and there are very active social movements. The Alternative Social Forum, and even the Chavez-sponsored official World Social Forum provided space for this debate, and allowed us to make connections.

It is important for the peace movement in this country to engage with independent groups in Venezuela, and to develop our own analysis beyond the black and white simplicity of the positive “Bolivarian revolution” or the negative “socialist barbarism”.